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Becoming a National Security Lawyer: Choose Your Own Adventure

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Here’s what to focus on to improve your odds of breaking into this burgeoning legal specialty.
Here’s what to focus on to improve your odds of breaking into this burgeoning legal specialty.

The need for national security lawyers can’t be underestimated. As threats evolve and areas implicating national security expand, the field will offer more and more opportunities for new lawyers. The national security community is changing, too, increasing the demand for new attorneys with fresh perspectives and worldviews.

Also expanding is the breadth of what’s deemed relevant to national security. The field used to be limited to federal agencies and the military. Today, there are few legal subjects and practice areas that don’t have some impact on national security.

Given the variety of national security–related legal jobs, the pathways to practicing in the specialty are diverse. There’s no one “right” path. In finding what’s best for you, you must make decisions on classes during law school and take advantage of outside opportunities to set yourself up for the postgraduate job search. As you do that, it’s important to understand the advantage of being a well-rounded lawyer.

In the classroom

When you’re choosing classes, if you can, take a national security class. But understanding other doctrinal classes is also useful in developing a full comprehension of national security law. For example:

  • Criminal law and procedure is important in knowing and grasping federal law.
  • International law instills knowledge of jurisdiction abroad and international cooperation and will develop a broader global foundation.
  • Business law is useful to appreciating the national security implications of fiscal choices of both federal agencies and large corporations.
  • Constitutional law is a necessary basis for recognizing the authorities of national security law and its boundaries.
  • Administrative law directly affects federal agencies and how they operate.

Beyond the classroom

To become a competitive candidate for national security positions, take advantage of several opportunities while you’re in law school. Like any lawyer, the key to being a successful national security lawyer is being good at research and writing.

So while you’re in school, write on national security topics to demonstrate not only your abilities but also your understanding and interest in the field. If you can get published in a law journal or sites like Lawfare or Just Security, it distinguishes you significantly. One of the single most advantageous and concrete actions you can take is to get published.

Demonstrating an interest in the field shows your passion for the work and is valued by employers. One way to do this is by being involved in your school’s national security extracurriculars.

What might these be? Of course, internships and externships in the national security or a related field offer incredible opportunities to see first-hand what national security lawyers do and to build your network.

Volunteer with such organizations as the ABA Standing Committee on the Law and National Security. That not only provides insight into the field but can be a great way to network, as well.

Listen to its podcasts, panel discussions, and conferences, too. And consider reading up on current national security issues and familiarizing yourself with the governing authorities.

A useful skill to develop is coding. The ability to code is highly valued by many employers in the field, so learning how to code could go a long way toward making you stand out as a candidate.

Similarly, if you can get a security clearance while in law school, that can be instrumental in landing a spot in one of the coveted federal agency honors programs. Clearances typically must be sponsored by an agency and are expensive for the agency to conduct. A clearance lasts for multiple years and opens many doors during the job search.

Beyond law school

Looking for a job as a national security lawyer can seem daunting, but it’s less so if you approach it with an open mind. Don’t feel like you need to work directly in national security right out of law school to have a career in the field.

People who are passionate about protecting the nation are often, understandably, eager to dive in right away. The reality is that, while honors programs exist at agencies—including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Justice—the number of available positions is limited.

Luckily, being a lawyer who practices in national security isn’t a “now or never” decision. Instead, focus on developing transferable skills and simply becoming a good lawyer.

Beyond federal agencies, one option for entering the field is to join the judge advocate general corps of any branch of the military. This four-year commitment is a common route for those able and interested in national security.

JAGs get experience and responsibility immediately in many areas of law. They also often get firsthand experience of the needs and operations of the military. Unsurprisingly, JAG corps offer a number of opportunities to specialize in national security law.

Experience in a law firm’s litigation or white-collar, anti-corruption practice can also offer transferable skills useful for a move to the government later. There’s a revolving door between BigLaw and government agencies, with many lawyers rotating among them during their career. Additionally, more and more firms are adding some sort of national security practice to ensure that companies’ business decisions and import and export considerations don’t pose a threat to national security.

Clerkships are another valuable experience to develop your skills. A one- or two-year clerkship can be a great way to make yourself more competitive when you’re looking for a permanent job. For instance, most, if not all, of the honors programs allow those who’ve clerked right out of law school to apply and compete against those just graduating.

Further, a role as a prosecutor offers valuable litigation and trial experience you can later use at an intel agency or the DOJ. Or consider working on Capitol Hill, where there are several committees and subcommittees related to national security.

Nongovernmental organizations and think tanks also address national security. Among them are the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Strategy Forum, the Truman Security Project, and New America. Alternatively, defense contractors—such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon—play an important role in national security, hire lawyers, and serve as a connection to federal government work.

If you really want that national security experience right out of the gate, consider working as an intelligence analyst for a few years before moving back to law. Intel analysts often use many of the same skills as lawyers, such as evaluating information and expressing it through clear writing.

A word of caution, however: Going down a nonlegal path straight out of law school can make it challenging to get back into the legal field. The longer you spend outside the legal field, the harder it is to get back. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing option for some, especially those unsure about their desire to actually practice law.

And keep in mind that the attorneys in intel and other federal agencies practice many different areas of law, even in their honors programs. They practice ethics, fiscal law, personnel litigation, administrative law, and contract law, as well as operational law.

There’s also a difference between practicing national security law and practicing law at an agency focused on national security. Agencies like the CIA, FBI, NAS, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have attorneys who cover all the agency’s legal needs. In this way, attorneys still serve the agency’s mission and are essential to protecting national security, despite not practicing national security law.

Location is another consideration. Washington, D.C., is considered the place to be a national security attorney. However, if you’d rather not live in the nation’s capital, positions in law firms, think tanks, NGOs, prosecutors’ offices, courthouses, and the military exist across the country and around the world.

No matter where you end up, keep in touch in the national security community and stay up to date on current issues. This will help you make the transition to your next step in the national security field.

And always remember that the most important thing is to just be a good lawyer. Build a reputation of being good at what you do while keeping an open mind and continuing to learn.

The country needs you

As a soon-to-be attorney, know that you bring value to the national security community no matter what you do. New attorneys bring a new perspective and way of understanding and interacting with the world. Multidisciplinary thinking and enthusiasm breathe fresh air into a field that can’t afford to be stagnant. New ways of thinking facilitate cooperation and provide new approaches to threats.

Further, today’s newest attorneys are generally more familiar with and comfortable with technology than their predecessors. Flexibility is essential in handling evolving technology, which adds to both the threats facing, and capabilities of, our nation.

These are just a few ways in which you, as a new attorney, would be invaluable to the national security field. Given the need for new national security lawyers and the diverse paths to become one, which will you choose?

Jamie Bishop Jamie Bishop is a 3L at Georgetown University Law Center and the student liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security.